An American Dream for Some, but Not for All

One southern city's uphill battle to increase upward mobility.

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May 5 2017, 4:15pm

A couple of years ago, I was teaching an English course at my local university. My class was a fairly mixed group of students, and we were discussing an assigned reading that touched on the "American Dream." I asked them to define what they thought that meant. One Asian-American student talked about the abundance of job opportunities, and noted that his view might be skewed because his parents were immigrants. When I asked him if he thought the American Dream was still attainable, he said yes.

Another student, a young black woman who grew up in the area, had a different answer. Her metaphor for the American Dream was a well-stocked refrigerator, and she pointed out that the ability to attain such a luxury was reserved for only some people. She said racism had a lot to do with it.

Increasingly, more data points to this woman being right.

According to research published last month in the journal Science, the promise of the American Dream is harder for people to reach today than it has been historically. If one of the defining features of the quintessential dream is for a child to one day earn more money than his/her parents, the probability to do so has dropped dramatically since the mid-20th Century. "The fraction of children earning more than their parents fell from approximately 90% for children born in 1940 to around 50% for children entering the labor market today," the study's authors write.

One city that is keenly aware of this issue is Charlotte, North Carolina. In a 2014 study led by Harvard (now Stanford) economist Raj Chetty (who also co-authored the aforementioned research), Charlotte came dead last on a list of the 50 largest cities for upward mobility. In short, children born in poverty here have only a 4 percent chance of making it out. Areas with high mobility, the study pointed out, generally have less residential segregation, less income inequality, better primary schools, greater social capital, and greater family stability.

"When Raj Chetty released the work around socio-economic mobility and opportunity," Brian Collier, the executive vice president of the Foundation for the Carolinas, told The Atlantic, "that's when it hit home for everyone that the place we thought of, Charlotte, being a place of opportunity, and a place where people move to for advancement, and for a great place for their family, it hit home that maybe people move here for opportunity, but the people who are born here, especially those from the low-income neighborhoods, don't have that same level of opportunity."

Horrified, city leaders assembled a task force to figure out how to move forward after the study's devastating findings. After spending 18 months trying to understand the problem, talking to more than 50 national, regional and local experts and reading countless reports about the issues that impact generational poverty, the 20-member task force released their own lengthy report in March.

"We acknowledge we don't have all the answers," the report states, "and others may disagree with our findings. Therefore, we view our report as a living document, one we hope will be refined and added to over time."

More than anything, the 21 key strategies, 91 recommendations, and over 100 implementation tactics and policy considerations included in the report illustrate how complex the issue is. Ultimately, the task force chose to focus on three determinants they felt would have the biggest impact on a person's ability to move up economically: early care and education, college and career readiness, and child and family stability. They also readily admit that children of color are disproportionately impacted by both racial and economic segregation and the lack of social capital, thus helping them to see what kind of possibilities could lie before them.

Among the report's vast array of recommendations was a call to increase affordable housing options in the city; eliminate the waitlist for subsidized child care for all children up to the age of five; and provide paid internships for high-performing, low-income college students enrolled in local schools.

"Our highest aspiration," the report's authors write, "is that our leaders—governmental, philanthropic, business, faith, nonprofit, neighborhood, and grassroots—as well as the community at large, will willingly come together to reorganize our systems and structures, to change policies and practices, and to boldly embrace and rally around" a vision that "Charlotte-Mecklenburg is a community that cares about all our children and youth—regardless of income, race or zip code."

But reorganizing—and in some cases, dismantling—those systems takes serious intentionality and time. As Dee O'Dell, task force co-chair, noted at the press conference unveiling the report, "there are immediate actions we can take … but this is a marathon, not a sprint."

A new task force has been organized, which will seek funding and figure out how to implement some of these recommendations. In the meantime, outside groups are also doing their part to help better the odds for Charlotte children. For example, the Boston-based nonprofit Greenlight Fund announced this week it pledges to invest $3.5 million, raised locally, to help lift low-income families out of poverty.

Another organization strategically tackling the mobility issue is City Startup Labs, which was inspired by New York City's Young Men's Initiative, aimed at advancing opportunities for young men of color. The Charlotte-based program, launched in 2014 by Henry Rock, focuses on helping young black millennials—it originally targeted young men but its next class will be opened to women as well—learn what it takes to be a viable entrepreneur.

Students progress through educational modules: from addressing cultural context—what it means "being a young black person in this country and how all of that comes to terms with how you see your possibilities," Rock explains—and understanding the entrepreneurial mindset to research and planning a new venture and actually bringing it to market.

Aside from potentially paving a way to a better financial future—Rock says not all of the young people in the program will ultimately end up in business—City Startup Labs gives its students the tools they need to be better problem solvers and innovators, which will benefit them as employees.

Another thing they take away is that much needed social capital: The program connects the students with accountability partners and business coaches as they work through their business idea, "and ultimately they get plugged into the entrepreneurial ecosystem that exists here in Charlotte," Rock says.

Thus far, the ideas that have grown out of City Startup Labs and are now up and running include a medical supply company, a consulting business that teaches educators how to include more diversity in their curriculum, and an online company involved in custom interior design and accessories.

"If we can begin to have cities like Charlotte," Rock says, "think in a way that is, by design, empowering young folks—and in this particular case, we're talking about African American young folks who have been on the margins, who have been watching the entrepreneurial parade go by—to get into the game, the benefits of that accrue to us all."

Gen-One Charlotte is another local program working to better equip children to understand the various pathways to a better future. A pilot program of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools that operates similar to a 501C3, Gen-One helps high-achieving, low-income students at Eastway, a local middle school, find the roadmap that will get them to and through college.

"At the core, we truly believe it's an injustice that these students are born into poverty," says Ian Joyce, Gen-One executive director. "Most or almost all of our students are high-achieving. They just don't know the path [to college] because they've never been shown it before. And so our goal is to help show them that path and just ensure they do get there."

Not only are the students provided mentoring and college advising, Joyce and founder Greg Gabriel also take them on trips to nearby colleges, where they can speak with professors and students there to get a better grasp of what they can expect. They also provide them opportunities to become more well-rounded through volunteer efforts and cultural excursions. In December, the students went to see the ballet, and future trips include dinner at the Ritz-Carlton and a visit to the beach, since many have never been.

"These students are in poverty, and they're underexposed to a lot of the culture that the affluent students are naturally exposed to when they go to college," Joyce explains. "It's part of the reason why students struggle to say in college—because they don't have the ability to connect with their peers, and they don't see their peers as similar to them."

"What makes our program unique as a college prep is we're catching them so early, in the 7th and 8th grade, when they're still able to be influenced," Joyce continues. "They're no longer using the word 'if'—'if we go to college.' They're starting to say 'when' and 'will.' You can just see that's such a huge indicator of the confidence that's growing."

Joyce says that there are a lot of factors going into the lack of social mobility in a city, but, at least for Southern cities on that Harvard study's list, he specifically points to the history of segregation and racial tensions.

He may be on to something. Last September, Charlotte made national headlines after Lamont Scott, a black man, was shot and killed by a police officer. In the aftermath, protesters took to the streets, the mayor installed a curfew, and the National Guard was deployed.

For many Charlotteans, the clash between protesters and police seemed unreal. But for countless others left behind in Charlotte's quest to be a prosperous, world-class city, it was only a matter of time.